|PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums|
Kenseth’s emotional victory in Sunday’s race at Phoenix harkened back fond memories of two Daytona 500 victories, the 2004 All-Star Race, an IROC championship, and countless quirky interviews. With it came the realization that it may be the final defining moment of a Hall of Fame career. Kenseth’s most impressive accomplishment was his 2003 Winston Cup Championship, a story made even more impressive when you realize how quickly and completely he accomplished that goal.
Kenseth cut his teeth on Wisconsin short tracks, where he raced against veterans like Robbie Reiser. In 1993, Reiser started his own NASCAR Busch Grand National Series team, but in twenty-nine starts managed just one top-ten finish. He the. became the crew chief of his own team, and hired Tim Bender to drive. But when Bender suffered a career-ending back injury in early 1997, he tabbed Kenseth to drive. Kenseth took the opportunity to race for Reiser in a handful of races, turning down a top-tier ride in the American Speed Association to do so. The pair finished 11th their first time out, and at Rockingham on February 21, 1998, Kenseth pulled a gutsy last-lap pass on Tony Stewart to win his first race. Once rivals, Kenseth and Reiser became one of the most successful pairings in NASCAR’s recent history.
With that first win in the books, the pieces continued to fall into place. In 1998, three Busch wins and a runner-up finish in points. In 1999, new sponsorship from DeWalt Power Tools and four more wins. Through it all came another fortuitous friendship – this time with Mark Martin. Kenseth caught Martin’s eye, and the youngster was groomed for a future with Roush Racing’s Cup effort. When Kenseth’s attempt to get a spare Roush car into Talladega fell short in qualifying, he broke through as a substitute driver. His debut came that September at Dover while driving in place of Bill Elliott, who was mourning the loss of his father George. Kenseth finished 6th. The next spring, he was chosen to relieve Bobby Labonte, who broke his shoulder in a savage practice crash at Darlington. He finished 10th.
The driver’s role as “super-sub” accelerated Roush’s plans to move Kenseth, Reiser, and DeWalt up to Cup as a new fifth team. A five-race exploratory run in the second half of the 1999 Winston Cup season yielded a 4th-place finish in his return to Dover. In 2000, he went full-time Cup racing. Among the rookies Kenseth raced against was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who defeated him for the Busch title in 1998. Kenseth outpaced his rival for Rookie of the Year despite scoring just one victory to Earnhardt’s two. Both drivers celebrated. Once again, rivalry had spawned a new friendship.
In hindsight, it’s surprising that Kenseth’s dominant run in 2003 was criticized to the point that it led to the creation of today’s Playoff format. The season matched the style that had earned him a spot in Cup, as well as countless comparisons to “The Silver Fox,” David Pearson. Much like his rookie battle with Earnhardt, Kenseth relied on just one victory – the season’s third round at Las Vegas – and used raw consistency to hold the point lead the rest of the year. Through the first thirty-five of thirty-six rounds, Kenseth racked-up twenty-five top-ten finishes (having finished worse than 20th just three times) and came home on the lead lap thirty-one times. This allowed him to lock-up the title in the penultimate round at Rockingham, scene of his breakthrough Busch win less than seven years earlier.
The championship surprised more than a few experts. Marty Smith, then writing for NASCAR Online, wrote before the season that he would dye his hair blue if a Ford managed to win the championship. As Smith followed through with his end of the bet, Kenseth prepared for the season finale at Homestead.
The 2003 Ford 400 was more than the end of a season. On top of Unocal 76 leaving as the sport’s exclusive fuel provider, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which had originally signed through 2007, decided to end its thirty-one-year relationship with NASCAR. In August, NASCAR created a “Victory Lap” tribute, where past Winston Cup champions – one active and one inactive – would be honored at each race. Richard Petty’s ceremonial laps in a blue-and-red #43 Dodge would be saved for Homestead, where he would make his first laps in a race car during a Cup Series points race since the checkered flag fell in the 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta. He would be joined on the pace laps by Tony Stewart, who was running a similar paint scheme as the defending Winston Cup Champion.
The race was also about new beginnings. Homestead-Miami debuted its third configuration since the track first opened. The previous two flat track configurations were replaced with today’s gradient banking, ranging from eighteen to twenty degrees in the corners. The result was much faster speeds and wilder racing. The Cup pole, the first earned by newly-minted Rookie of the Year Jamie McMurray, came in at 181.111mph – nearly 26mph faster than the pole speed a year before. Kenseth didn’t find as much speed, lining up just 37th on the grid. Despite the strength of his season, this was not unusual. In fact, he started 37th six other times that year.
Five drivers missed the cut in qualifying. The first was series veteran Ken Schrader, whose BAM Racing #49 Dodge had struggled with sponsorship issues all season. Kyle Petty joined him in Petty Enterprises’ #45 Georgia-Pacific Dodge. A third Dodge sent home was driven by Mike Wallace for James Finch’s Phoenix Racing, the #09 sponsored by the Miccosukee Resort & convention Center. Derrike Cope missed the cut in his first attempt for Arnold Motorsports in the #79 Dodge. Last was single-car Conely Racing, which hired Rich Bickle to drive their #78 SBC / Molykote Chevrolet. In addition, Hendrick Motorsports withdrew their fifth car, a #60 ditech.com Chevrolet to be driven by a Busch Series newcomer named Kyle Busch. Busch's car was confiscated by NASCAR after it was discovered the rear window didn't meet specifications. This delayed Busch's Cup debut to Las Vegas the following spring.
Several other part-timers made the cut. Rookie driver Larry Foyt endured a difficult first season, and arrived at Homestead out of provisionals and not guaranteed a spot in the field. In time trials, he stunned with the 12th-fastest lap, and on Sunday finished 16th in A.J. Foyt's #14 Harrah's Dodge. It was Foyt's only Cup finish better than 28th. Another standout was Truck Series veteran Ron Hornaday, Jr., who earned a spot in Richard Childress Racing's part-time fourth team, a #90 Chevrolet. The white car was sponsored by Childress' new winery, Childress Vineyards, which would start selling wine the following season. Like Foyt, Hornaday made the field on speed, snatching 28th on the grid, and improved to finish 20th. A third surprise was fellow Truck Series veteran Mike Skinner, released earlier that year by Morgan-McClure Motorsports. Skinner’s car was fielded by Michael Waltrip Racing – just the fourth Cup start made by the team – and had a DEI engine under the hood. The engine in his #00 Bacardi Silver / Raz Chevrolet put Skinner 17th on the grid, but he would end up in LASTCAR contention at race's end.
Starting 43rd and last on the grid was Kenny Wallace, who was rounding out his final season driving for Bill Davis Racing in the #23 Stacker 2 Dodge. Wallace only failed to finish three races that season, but averaged just a 26th-place finish with a single Top 10 coming in the spring race at Bristol. On Lap 4, as Wallace held on to the back of the field, trouble broke out up front. Heading into the first turn, 6th-place starter Kevin Harvick was reeling in Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman, who were racing side-by-side. Harvick found an opening down low, but broke loose, sliding up the track into Newman and Busch. While Harvick steered into the grass to avoid serious damage, Newman and Busch’s cars were heavily damaged, barely able to limp onto pit road. Without the “Crash Clock,” however, both cars were repaired in the garage area. Newman was classified last with Busch 42nd.
Kenseth, meanwhile, was minding his own business until disaster struck. On Lap 29, as he came into Turns 3 and 4, trailed a long stream of white smoke, then coasted around the apron. He pulled into the garage in 41st, then dropped to 43rd when both Busch and Newman returned to the race, finishing 36th and 37th respectively. With points runner-up Jimmie Johnson finishing 3rd, Kenseth’s point lead dropped from 226 at Rockingham to just 90 after Homestead.
Finishing 42nd that day was John Andretti, who was driving Dale Earnhardt, Inc.’s #1 Chevrolet in the team’s final race with Pennzoil as the primary sponsor. Andretti’s engine let go twenty-nine laps after Kenseth’s, the nose caved-in after the Harvick / Busch / Newman incident. Behind him in 41st was Michael Waltrip, whose #15 NAPA Chevrolet crashed in Turn 2, drawing the day’s third caution. 40th fell to Jeff Green, who was closing out his first full season driving for Petty Enterprises in the #43 Chex by Petty Dodge. Rounding out the Bottom Five was Mike Skinner, whose Michael Waltrip car suffered crash damage.
The race ended in dramatic fashion with Bill Elliott blowing a tire on the last lap, handing Bobby Labonte his final Winston Cup victory. Once the dust settled, Kenseth returned to the track in the team’s backup car to do a burnout, then drove up to the championship stage for the season-ending ceremony. He would not finish last in another Cup Series race until March 1, 2009, and not for a third time until Daytona this past February. This different kind of consistency, which dates back to that day at Homestead in 2003, remains another of Kenseth’s enduring legacies.
*This marked the first Cup Series last-place finish for car #17 since August 23, 1997, when Darrell Waltrip crashed after 115 laps of the Goody’s Headache Powder 500 at Bristol. It remains the number’s only last-place run at Homestead. That race marked the fifth and final Cup last-place finish for Waltrip's team DarWal Enterprises.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
43) #17-Matt Kenseth / 28 laps / engine
42) #1-John Andretti / 57 laps / engine
41) #15-Michael Waltrip / 72 laps / crash
40) #43-Jeff Green / 81 laps / engine
39) #00-Mike Skinner / 89 laps / crash
*Jayski’s Silly Season Site
*Staff Writer, “R.J. Reynolds’ decision to leave Winston Cup not surprising,” Savannah Morning News, February 7, 2003.